The lives of Sri Aurobindo

François Gautier

Source: Express buzz

First Published : 27 Feb 2009 03:52:00 AM IST

There is no greater mystery than the Divine incarnating Itself upon earth, what in India is called the Avatar or the Guru concept. It is also a story of Ultimate Sacrifice: Jesus Christ was crucified physically, but every guru is crucified by his or her disciples, even if he or she does not end on a cross. It is the mysterious alchemy of how the All-Perfect, the All-Powerful, agrees to don a human body, along with not only the suffering that goes with it, but also the imperfections a human life is endowed with, which makes it so powerful. Peter Heehs, an American historian, who lives in the Sri Aurobindo ashram, Puducherry, has attempted to recount the life of 20th century’s greatest avatar, in The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (Columbia University Press, May 2008). It created a furore even before it was released in India, as extracts were circulated on the Net. This led to a lot of unpleasantness for Heehs.

Someone slapped a case against him in Orissa, stopping the book from being published in India. He was asked to leave the archives of the Sri Aurobindo ashram, where he worked for two decades; and it is rumoured that he was even assaulted by a student of the Sri Aurobindo school. All biographies of gurus and saints face a painful choice: should they paint over human blemishes and glorify them, as it helps the devotees better focus on the divine? Or should they give the entire picture of a journey from the human to the perfect? Most religious texts and scriptures have chosen the first option. But Peter Heehs went for the second one — and we are grateful for that. For his work will be regarded by future generations as the absolute biography of Sri Aurobindo, avatar extraordinary, poet, revolutionary, philosopher and yogi. Not only is the book remarkably well researched but, as the title indicates, he has really covered all aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life. When an Avatar or a Master comes upon earth, he or she delivers a teaching adapted to the times, the language and the mentality of the period, for they always live in the present moment. But when the Master goes — and sometimes even during his or her lifetime — the disciples start the process of making a religion out of their teaching and make him or her in their own little image. Thus many of the sadhaks of the Mother have swept under the carpet Sri Aurobindo’s revolutionary years, which are very important, as he is the true father of the Indian nation, being the first to openly ask for outright independence.

Most of today’s disciples in the ashram or Auroville do not know, for instance, that Sri Aurobindo allowed his brother Barin to manufacture bombs in his own house and secretly endorsed early assassinations of select Britons, thereby re-enacting 5,000 years later Krishna’s message to Arjuna. But how does that tally with ideas about spirituality, which we basically associate with non-violence? This aspect of Sri Aurobindo’s life, protecting dharma, standing for what is good and true and noble, by force, if necessary, is today ignored and not applied to the enemies of modern India. It is difficult to write about something close to us, as one often tries to make a distance by being too critical. It is thus true that Heehs is harsh in some of his assessments — but not where he has been pilloried by disciples of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Like most Western Indologists, for instance, he has a deep suspicion of Hinduism. He therefore glosses over the famous Uttarpara speech, where Sri Aurobindo clearly defines what he calls the Sanatana Dharma, as the spirituality which is contained in the Hindu religion: “That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion, because it is the universal religion which embraces all others”.

But Peter only mentions that “left wing critics use the Uttarpara speech as a proof that Sri Aurobindo’s nationalism was Hindu to the core; and right-wing enthusiasts regard the speech as an expression of the imperishable Indian spirit” (p.187). Heehs also passes some judgments on Sri Aurobindo, which are at best puerile: he calls him “intransigent”, which tended “to limit his effectiveness” (p.212); he also finds “his poetry and prose outdated” (p.414). But Savitri, Sri Aurobindo’s Magnum Opus, will be read hundreds of years from now, and compared to the Iliad and the Odyssey, with the prophetic and supramental element added. This stated, I have to say that reading this book has been one of the most uplifting literary experiences: it has refreshed and upgraded my relationship with Sri Aurobindo. I have understood better the extraordinary mystery of avatarhood and the terrible sacrifice made by all great gurus of all religions.

The rhythms of that book accompanied me in my sleep, primed my mornings and touched my heart to the deepest. Thank you, Peter Heehs. I hope some sensible judge will quickly lift the ban and that all your detractors will have the courage to read this remarkable biography and change their opinions.

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5 responses to “The lives of Sri Aurobindo

  1. Can you participate in objective, academic, respectful and honest discussions at
    http://www.thelivesofsriaurobindo.com and help general population to understand this book properly?

  2. Seems like a good book. Sad thing is that I can’t even get the book in India due to the hard working folks at http://www.thelivesofsriaurobindo.com. They’ve managed to get the book removed from all leading bookstores shipping to India.

  3. Sona Singh Gill

    SRI AUROBINDO ASHRAM TRUST

    It is unfortunate that certain rumours are being circulated that the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust is in some way endorsing, supporting or promoting the book “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” by Peter Heehs. We would like to re-iterate what has been our consistent stand since October 2008 namely:

    “Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust does not approve and has nothing to do with the book entitled “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” written by Peter Heehs and Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust is not in any way responsible for the contents or the interpretations of the material contained therein….”

    This is to re-affirm that the stand of the Ashram Trust has been consistent and has remained unchanged. The book is not sold from any department of the Ashram.

    The Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust is fully aware of its responsibilities and its actions are determined keeping in view the vision and values it is meant to uphold.

    For The Board of Trustees
    [Signed: Manoj Das Gupta]
    Seal: MANOJ DAS GUPTA
    Managing Trustee
    Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust
    Pondicherry
    23.09.2010

  4. Dear Francois,
    I am so surprised by your endorsement of the book. Do you really think that it is only books like TLOSA will keep Sri Aurobindo from deified. Do you know as an archives incharge he corrected the manuscripts written by Sri Aurobindo. What will be your response for some enlightned western disciple of Sri Sri writing a book on him with a finding that Sri Sri is pedophile and homosexual (like our scholar of “Kali’s children”). At least you being a westener (and deeply Indian too) should recognise this pattern of mud-slinging on Avatars. I am ashamed of patronising you and your projects. Wish Sri Aurobindo, Sri Sri and the Mother stop you from doing such in future.

  5. Dear Francois Gautier,
    Being a long term admirer, I am extremely disappointed by your support for this pernicious book. Maybe you missed out the admittedly subtle, yet persistent, denigrating references to Sri Aurobindo in the book. Maybe you were not aware of Heeh’s track record – please go through Jugal Kishore Mukherjee’s letters written as far back as 1984 to the Ashram Truste, and reproduced on the site http://www.thelivesofsriaurobindo.com. I hope a further perusal of matters will prompt you to rethink your endorsement. Thanks.

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